The Fundamental Limitations of US Democracy
Always be suspicious of anyone who claims to embody “democracy” without any qualifiers. Why? If they do make such a claim, they are trying to universalise their own particular form of democracy. The United States has been especially guilty of this claim, as we will see. But before I deal with the United States, let me analyse the types of democracy that are possible.
Types of Democracy
It has become clear that “democracy” does not exist as an absolute and universal term. Instead, we have particular types of democracy.
The ancient Greeks, especially in Athens, practised what may be called “Greek democracy.” It was exercised by the adult males in the small population of the polis. The term polis should not be translated as city, for it was really a town surrounded by fields used for agriculture. The populations of even the largest towns were no more than 30,000.
Another type of democracy is liberal or bourgeois democracy, which spread from Europe to some other parts of the world after the French Revolution of 1789. This form of democracy is restricted to adults over the age of 18 and follows a pattern of representation to a parliament, which does the real work. Notably, bourgeois democracy is, as the name suggests, the form preferred by the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie or middle class. It is also a mechanism developed to prevent the inroads of socialism.
A third form of democracy has arisen more recently in Eastern Europe and may be called “illiberal democracy.” We find it in Russia and Hungary today, where the ruling party in the parliament ensures its continued rule by hindering any serious opposition party.
The final type of democracy is socialist democracy, which is very different from the preceding types. Socialist democracy is found in varying shapes in socialist states where the communist party also forms the government.
Limits of Liberal Democracy
Much more may be said concerning the way these forms of democracy function. But in this article I focus on liberal (also called parliamentary or bourgeois) democracy, with the Unites States specifically in mind. The central point is that liberal democracy is not merely limited in extent (which would then simply entail an extension of that democracy) but that it is structurally geared to exclude significant groups from that liberal “democracy.” In fact, it requires such exclusions in order to constitute itself as “democracy.”
This pattern of exclusion already appears in the earliest theorists of liberalism. For example, John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” for liberty is only for “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 224). As for the rest of the world, they are little superior to the animals. Similar sentiments are found in the work of John Locke, who observed that slavery in the colonies was self-evident and indisputable (Political Essays, p. 180). In other words, liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin.
Let us focus on today’s beacon of “democracy” and “liberty”: liberal democracy developed in the white community of the United States in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples (see Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History). When Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he did so as a slave owner. So also was George Washington, as were the other members of the team given responsibility for the declaration, as was John Madison who wrote the constitution, as were the presidents of the United States for 32 of its first 36 years. Indeed, for them a liberal and tolerant society was one that excluded the fanaticism of the slavery abolitionists.
How could these founders of the United States make such bold claims while being apparent hypocrites? “All men are created equal” relied on a crucial restriction to the sense of “all,” which certainly did not include slaves, women and “inferior” folk. One cannot understand “American liberty” without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other.
However, the way they understood of liberal democracy over time was subtle. The line between who should be included and who excluded always shifts; as some groups are included (slaves, workers, women), others are excluded. For instance, during the so-called Progressive Era, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous “democratic” reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret ballot, primaries, referenda, and so on. Yet they all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to assimilate Indigenous people and deprive them of their residual lands.
So also with the treatment of “rogue” or “pariah” states outside the United States. “Rogue” was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an “R” to signify their status. Now the term is used for states: once declared a “rogue” or “pariah” state, the “world’s oldest democracy” (Clinton) and “model for the world” (Bush) tries to crush these “barbarians” (Mill) in the name of the war cry, “freedom and democracy.”
As a further example from our own time: the continued construction of a prohibitively expensive wall between the United States and Mexico serves as a physical reminder of the built-in limits of liberal democracy in the United States. Those who still manage to enter the southern United States are denied basic rights, with one exception: they may join the armed forces. Indeed, recruitment targets non-citizens, offering them the hope of fast track to citizenship. Indeed, if a non-citizen is killed in combat, he or she will be granted citizenship posthumously.
Outside the United States, the examples multiply. We may include the necessary role of beggars, vagrants, workhouses, white servants, kidnapping of poor children for the army and for colonial labour, and even the tendency towards eugenics in the development of liberalism and liberal democracy in England. Oppression is inherent in liberalism’s focus on the individual and the growth of master-race democracy in Europe as it engaged in colonial expansion. Further, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for “human rights,” “liberty,” and “freedom” amount? We may deploy Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: “philanthropy + 5 per cent,” where “philanthropy” is synonymous with “human rights” and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of “human rights.”
Many of these details are reasonably well known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they do not live up to their ideals. Instead, I suggest that the very possibility of bourgeois “democracy” and “freedom” is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority.
The United States Today
What about the situation in the United States today? A few facts will enable us to make a conclusion. To begin with, liberal or parliamentary democracy fosters systemic corruption. For example, a common practice in the American houses of parliament is “tagging” or “Christmas-treeing” a bill. The term designates a whole series of amendments that have little if any relation to the original bill – so that it looks like a Christmas tree covered in decorations. The purpose is to buy votes for the bill by including special requests from individual members of parliament. They are in fact legalised bribes in order to win enough votes for the legislation to pass. It may be a bill concerning the defence budget, but one person demands a special “tag” for his friends on Wall Street, another for sugar farmers, or another for a new freeway in his electorate. Such “tags” may run into the thousands, blowing out the budget for the initial bill out of all proportion.
The examples could go on, such as the legalisation of unlimited bribery – “secret money” – from the rich for political campaigns through the Political Actions Committees (PACs), the constant flow of undeclared money to influence political decisions by special interest groups such as the National Rifle Federation, and the fact that only the very rich can launch election campaigns. The most recent example is the campaign by Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. This outspoken racist now leads the Republican nomination list.
Second, voter participation appears to be at historic lows. By the 2014 mid-term elections, more than 60 percent of people did not bother to vote. When we consider low income earners and the young, the figure jumps to 80 percent. Many people cannot name the political parties and they do not know the name of their local member. When asked, people simply say that voting makes no difference. The extremely wealthy always get their way and it is in the interest of the ruling parties not to have a high turnout. Why? There is no political party in the United States that represents workers, so the Republican and Democratic parties have little interest in encouraging them to vote.
Some would regard this as evidence of a decline in interest in liberal democracy. If we take this view, then we could argue that the people of the United States have begun to realise that the system does not work. However, figures show that most presidential elections since 1920 have hovered around 50 percent of voter turnout. We may interpret this fact in two ways. First, for almost a century, the common people in the United States have largely been uninterested in its liberal democracy. Second, and picking up my earlier point, liberal democracy functions to exclude real participation by those who wish to change the system. Both points are true.